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Are we normalising obesity?

The rising obesity problem is a subject that is constantly in the news these days. As with every ‘latest thing’ that comes in and out of the public consciousness, when a topic is hot, we find every journalist and blogger out there writing about it, and opinions become varied, multitudinous and often contentious. And so it is with obesity.

In recent years we have seen many opinions about obesity, and read much shared research. We see that obesity can be blamed on genes, and we can read that childhood obesity is down to parenting, not junk food. We might read in the news that obesity could be classified as an eating disorder, or the next day the news will tell us that obesity is caused by poverty. We read that in the US, obesity is being treated as a disease, and we see obesity being blamed on something called obesogenic environments. Another day we may read about the obesity-promoting role of hyperpalatable foods, and we are constantly reading that sugar is to blame for obesity, and other addictive foods. We see the obesity epidemic blamed on the giant corporations of the food industry, and we may have even read that obesity is socially contagious.

Amid all this, while many derogatory words have been written about obese people over the years, now we see the tide turning. Many journalists and bloggers are now reporting that fat shaming does no good, it only makes things worse, it hurts people, and it’s time to stop blaming obese people for their condition; we must be more understanding and supportive. It is suggested that obesity is actually just a learned set of behaviours. We are seeing new reports that obese people are treated differently, to their detriment, by the doctors, and some experts are saying that if you put together everything above, then it plain isn’t your fault if you are fat.

Normalising obesity

It certainly is a contentious topic. I’m not going to go through all those news articles linked above and address each one of them in turn, giving my analysis and opinion on them all, that would take many pages of writing. Suffice to say that some of those articles I broadly agree with, some I largely disagree with, and most, or perhaps all of them, I would say contain some truth, but not ‘the only truth’.

The weight problem in the UK is accelerating rapidly. Official data from 2013 shows that 26% of men in the UK are obese, and 67% of men in the UK are either overweight or obese. For women, those figures are 24% and 57%, respectively. Of all the large, populous nations in Western Europe, the UK is the fattest. In the United States, the problem is even worse, with 71% of men and 62% of women overweight or obese.

To give that data some context, 50 years ago, in the mid-1960s, obesity in the UK stood at around 1.5% (1.8% men, 1.2% women, in 1965). 

So the sight of obese people has become normal, the reality of our rising obesity rate has become known and accepted throughout society, and obesity in children is rising even faster than in adults, so it would seem obesity is already accepted in future generations, more than ever before. Scientists are publishing reports to say that the ‘eat less, move more’ mantra is pointless and can even be detrimental, and that we should treat obesity as a chronic illness, and offer patients psychotherapy and surgery. At the same time, we have fitness bloggers and other market commentators writing that eating less and moving more isn’t going to help, and people can still eat pizza if they want to, they just need to find a way to burn it off.

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The more writers write, the more experts give opinions, the more confusion surrounds us all.

My overarching concerns in all this, are that we are normalising obesity, and that we are confusing the very people who most need help. When I say normalising obesity, I mean, I fear that as a society, in our politically correct efforts to end so-called ‘fat shaming’ and not be so judgemental, are we in fact promoting a message that says ‘it’s OK to be obese’?

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about judgement. There are people who are obese but fit and seemingly pretty healthy, and there are people who are thin and very unfit and unhealthy. Medically, being grossly underweight is actually more indicative of ill health than being grossly overweight, when populations at large are measured. Being obese should never be an excuse to point a finger at anyone as being ‘less’ in any way. Obese does not mean stupid, unfit, lazy, unkind, mean or any such thing, just as being ‘skinny and pretty’ should never be taken to mean vacuous, vain or banal, or being muscular and lean means narcissistic or uneducated.

All these labels are dumb stereotypes, insults thrown around by small minds, and this is not what I am talking about when I say we are in danger of normalising obesity. Body acceptance is a separate social and psychological issue. For years, when the media has been filled with images of rail-thin models presented as female stereotypes, we have worried that ‘normalising ultra-skinny’ pushes impressionable young girls towards eating disorders. Is this possibly the same thing again now, that normalising obesity will actually make the problem worse, not better?

I am talking about drawing a line between caring and not judging, but at the same time not giving people more excuses to accept obesity as a state of inevitability. With all that’s been written, I worry too many people will accept that their obesity is beyond their control. I hear people saying things like “Well all my family are fat, so it must be in my genes, and the food companies spend billions selling this stuff to us, it’s everywhere, I have no choice, it’s all we can get at work/college/in town.” And “It’s not my fault, my parents raised me this way, I was fat as a kid, my mum never taught me to cook, we always ate in front of the TV, I can’t help it, I’m addicted to sugar.”

Solutions are not so simple

I hear real people say these very words, and this worries me. I worry this is the normalisation of obesity. And it makes me want to scream “Stop! You can change, don’t just go with it, you have to fight this thing! You need to eat less and move more!” but there are many out there who would tell me that “it’s more complicated than that” and “you’re just fat shaming” and “you don’t understand” and I fear that all these writers are giving people the ‘answers’ they need to live with their obesity in the belief that obesity is OK, it’s normal these days, it’s not that big of a deal.

Well I am sorry but it is a big deal.

Obesity is a direct cause, or major contributor, in heart disease, 13 common types of cancer, stroke, metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes, depression, joint wear and more. While many people are broadly aware that obesity is a contributing factor in heart disease, and type-2 diabetes, there is a general lack of awareness that obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK. To quote Cancer Research UK “Being overweight or obese is the single biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking and is linked to an estimated 18,100 cancer cases each year in the UK.” I meet a lot of people in my life who are overweight or obese, who enjoy sweet sugary foods, enjoy plenty of alcoholic drinks, and laugh off exercise and green vegetables. Sadly, I have never met anyone who laughs off cancer.

I have lost friends in their 40s and 50s to heart disease and cancer, I have lost loved ones young and old, and it breaks my heart to see so many people suffering, when there is so much we can all do to improve our own health outcomes. Obesity is a direct cause of heart disease and cancer, and most people don’t even know it.

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I wholly appreciate that the factors causing obesity are complex and there is no one single thing. Like most poor health conditions, obesity is what doctors call multifactorial. In most cases, multiple factors combine to promote obesity in a person, and they won’t always be the same combinations of the same factors for everyone.

I look at all those points in all those articles and news items linked above, and I see merit in all of it. I see some truth in every argument.

But I ask you this. All these arguments, they might be ‘true’ but are they ‘right’?
Are they normalising obesity and fostering social acceptance of obesity?
By pointing out ‘causal factors’ that are true to some degree, are they improving our society and actually helping people, or just passing around the blame, while failing to contribute any beneficial solution?

Something we can change, or a life sentence?

While it’s true that genetics play a role in obesity, we humans had the same genes in 1965, yet only 1.5% of the population was obese. Personally, I have had my genes tested, I have these ‘FTO genes’, the so called obesity genes, but I am not obese. I was, but I am not now. I changed my diet and lifestyle, and overcame my obesity.

Genetics only load the gun, your diet and lifestyle choices can determine whether or not you pull the trigger.

It’s true that many parents are busy working full time, and they park their kids in front of the TV, feed them quick-cook convenience food and don’t encourage them to go out to exercise, failing to lead by example. It’s true, but it’s not a life sentence. My mother was a single mum, she raised my sister and I while working two or three jobs, she never had much money to spare and she certainly never played any sport or ‘led by example’ by engaging in regular exercise. Did that result in me becoming a TV addict as a kid? Yes. Did that result in me becoming an obese teenager? Yes. But again, I repeat, I turned all that around in adulthood by taking control of my own diet and lifestyle choices.

You see my point. All those things written about in the links above, may be contributing factors, but most of them were factors 20 or 30 or 40 years ago too, and we didn’t have an obesity epidemic then. The only thing that has appreciably increased in the last 40 or 50 years…since the 1977/1983 changes in national dietary advice (US/UK) we have reduced fat in foods and increased sugar. And in recent decades, big food companies have massively expanded their ranges, where 40 years ago there may have been about 10 or 12 choices of breakfast cereal available in the UK shops, now there are 60 or 70 or 80 in a large modern supermarket.

I am not in any way belittling all the varied and complex reasons that contribute to obesity, I am merely pointing out that most of those same factors were around 10 years ago, 30 years ago, and 50 years ago. The major factors that have changed –

  • Increase in consumption of processed foods, less cooking from scratch at home using fresh whole foods
  • Increase in added sugar in manufactured food and drink
  • Bigger food companies, bigger retailers, bigger supermarkets, more food and more choice
  • Increase in car usage
  • Overall increase in per-capita caloric consumption
  • Overall decrease in physical activity, increase in sedentary lifestyles

What does that mean?
We eat more, and move less.

I hate to sound over simplistic, I know this post will find its critics, but I genuinely believe that for a considerable proportion of the public who are overweight or obese, this remains a basic truth. Not for everyone, of course, as we have said, obesity is multifactorial, but I think that for the majority of people, eat less and move more, is still the best advice.

The downside of normalising obesity, is the distraction away from personal responsibility.
It’s important to draw the line between promoting personal responsibility, and not being judgemental.
We don’t want to hear “You’re fat and it’s all your own fault.”
Instead we can say “I think you are overweight because you consistently eat more calories than you need, let me help you with some meal ideas and exercise tips, and let’s see if we can turn this trend around.”

As a society, let’s try not to accept and normalise something we don’t want. Obesity and diabetes (similar causes, similar preventive solutions – exercise, good diet, more veg, drink less, etc.) is costing the NHS a staggering £16 billion per year, more than war, violence and terrorism combined. We face the threat of our beloved NHS being privatised or going bankrupt if we don’t get a grip on the rising costs of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer here in the UK. We can all prevent this from happening, by taking steps to live a healthier life. This is the essence of preventive medicine.

I’m all for being understanding, I’m all for offering a helping hand to those in a difficult situation. But if we shift our culture to accept obesity and we pat everyone on the back and say ‘there, there, it’s not your fault, you have a disease, poor you’ then what is that going to do to change the situation? As I see it, we have two choices – either we are blaming the food companies, the sugar, the retail networks and genes, in which case governments worldwide need to very quickly legislate to reduce food sales, reduce added sugar, reduce retail availability (no more Sunday shopping, no more 24 hour shops, no more home deliveries…?) and tax food companies for the costs of healthcare. OR, we accept that a large part of the obesity epidemic is down to personal responsibility, and we start educating people from school onwards, and in the home, to eat less and move more. If you disagree with this post, I ask you, what other solution do you have?

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Of course, all of this is addressed and solved by the 12 Core Principles of Mother Nature’s Diet. (See the short version here.) We cut out the bulky processed grains, all those starches that add many more calories to the diet than most people need. We cut out the refined sugar, we ditch all the processed foods, and we mostly just eat fresh whole foods. We exercise regularly, and we get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Many people write to me, all the time, saying they follow the 12 Core Principles of Mother Nature’s Diet and they have lost weight, reduced their type-2 diabetes, and never felt so good.

Don’t you think it’s worth a try?

If you can’t face it alone, we have a Community, join us for support and encouragement, share your weight loss journey with others on their journey, and benefit from knowing you are not alone.

Know that you have a choice, you can change, and you can get help.

To your good health!

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